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Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Article: Robert De Niro: American Film 1981 + Video
Robert De Niro Interview
From American Film, March 1981 "Dialogue on Film: Robert De Niro" A big thanks to Claudia Keith for typing this!
Some people who work in film are uncomfortable talking to the press, but enjoy sitting down with film students to talk about their craft. Robert DeNiro is one of them. The “Dialogue on Film” this month is drawn from a long session the actor held with several dozen fellows at the institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles. Settled on a couch surrounded by young people working toward careers in film and television, DeNiro spoke informally about directors, films, and technique.
A prime topic, of course, was RAGING BULL, in which DeNiro portrays the boxer Jake La Motta as something less than a model citizen. What did La Motta think of the film, an AFI fellow asked. At the time, La Motta had not yet seen it; it was to be screened for him, DeNiro disclosed, the next day. “Oh boy,” the fellow said. “Are you concerned about his opinion?” DeNiro replied, “I’d like him to like it. If he doesn’t like it, I would understand that, too.” La Motta’s reaction, he added, might be influenced by the feedback he gets from friends. Then with a smile, DeNiro said, “If they tell him bad things, then he’ll come looking for me.”
They must have told him good things. When DeNiro showed up at the annual banquet of the New York Film Critics Circle to accept the Best Actor award for RAGING BULL, he was presented with the award by none other than Jake La Motta.
An inquiry into the arts and crafts of filmmaking through interview seminars between Fellows and prominent film-makers held at Greystone, under the auspices of the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies.
Robert DeNiro, who likes his privacy, has long been the bane of interviewers. But as his extraordinary talent develops, he is also threatening to become the bane of critics. Other actors act; DeNiro does something else, and the critics are hard put to describe it. After viewing his astonishing performance as the boxer Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL, they were left casting about for words—most of them superlatives.
If the critics are at a loss, small wonder that DeNiro himself is not always a helpful witness of how he does what he does. But as he shows in this month’s Dialogue, he is forcefully articulate in describing what he needs before he can confidently step in front of the camera. For one thing, a sympathetic director; for another, a staggering regimen of preparation.
DeNiro’s obsessive homework before shooting a movie has already become legendary. For RAGING BULL, he worked out for months in a boxing ring(the fun part was gaining weight); for THE DEER HUNTER, he spent weeks with Ohio valley steelworkers, drinking with them in bars, eating dinner in their homes, all the while observing mannerisms and recording speech habits. Friends recall that he paid his own way to Italy to research a small role for THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT. DeNiro once told an interviewer that to play studio boss Monroe Stahr in THE LAST TYCOON, “I spent time just walking around the studio dressed in three-piece suits, thinking, This is all mine.”
DeNiro, born in New York City thirty-seven years ago, has been an actor half his life. Despite his memorable portrayals of street-wise characters—like Johnny Boy in MEAN STREETS—his upbringing belonged to an entirely diffetent milieu. His parents were both well-regarded artists in Greenwich Village; houseguests included noted painters, poets, and critics. DeNiro turned to acting when he was a teenager, studying with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. He appeared in workshop productions, on off-off Broadway lofts, and in touring companies, and broke into films in his early twenties in Brian DePalma’s THE WEDDING PARTY(made in 1966, but not released until 1969).
In the Dialogue, DeNiro is reticent about those early days, but he talks frankly about his more recent work, especially his close collaboration with Scorcese over the years. He also discusses directors like Elia Kazan and Bernardo Berolucci, the contributions of screenwriters, and his acting plans.
?: In RAGING BULL you don’t so much play Jake La Motta as become him. Where do you usually start when you are developing a performance?
DeNiro: Well, everything I do is different. I could see someone in the street who has some sort of quirk or eccentricity, and that one little thing would be interesting to do in a film. It could be just that simple—say it’s just right for the character. Usually I read the script and I like the character and I can see things in it—or I get a picture in my mind of people I know or have seen. Then I start working on it and picking up things here and there.
?: What attracted you to RAGING BULL?
DeNiro: I was interested in fighters. The way they walk, the weight thing—they always blow up—and there was just something about Jake La Motta that was, for me, interesting. I wanted to play a fighter—just like a child wants to be someone else. The fun of it is when you get into just experimenting. If you’re lucky, you make good choices that will work. As Stella Adler used to say, “Your talent lies in your choice.”
?: Did you have any trouble losing all the weight you gained?
DeNiro: No. I just went back to my old eating habits. It was easy.
?: How did you gain sixty pounds?
DeNiro: I’m answering this question for the six-thousandth time. It was very easy. I just had to get up at six-thirty in the morning and eat breakfast at seven in order to digest my food to eat lunch at twelve or one in order to digest my food to eat a nice dinner at seven at night. So it was three square meals a day, that’s all. You know, pancakes, beer, milk.
?: In BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, you managed to convince us you were a baseball player. What sort of homework did you do?
DeNiro: I went down South with a tape recorder and got local people to go over the whole script with me. Then I was always watching for little traits that I could use. And then I did all the baseball. We practiced in Central Park for, I think, three weeks to a month. When I was in Florida, I practiced a lot, even with the batting machines. I also watched ball games on television. You’re looking right at the catcher all the time, and you can see how relaxed he is, in a sense.
The main thing is to make it appear as if you’re throwing it away. I believe in practice, just doing it over and over. If you do it over, then you can throw it away. There was a scene in RAGING BULL, one of the scenes where I went back to the corner after knocking somebody down. I was doing too much because I didn’t know what to do, and it was the first fight scene that we shot. I was jumping up and down a little too much. When you see actual fighters, they do that. But they also just wait in the corner. It’s like anything else. In the beginning you learn the rules, and then you realize that the rules are there to use or not to use and that there are millions of different ways of doing something.
Even with NEW YORK, NEW YORK and learning the saxophone. It was just to learn it so that I wouldn’t look as if I didn’t know what I was doing. I really worked on it very hard. But I wonder if I should have saved a little more energy for other things and just worried about what was going to be seen. I worked like hell on that thing. But you either have to know it so well that you can really do it or you have to find a way to do it so that you can know just enough and still feel comfortable with it.
?: Do you sometimes look at dailies and say, for instance, “I’ll continue on that,” or maybe feel that something was pushed too much?
DeNiro: Oh, yes. I’ll look, but then I’ll realize I’m looking at myself on one angle all the time. I know the director will see that, and if he’s got any sense, he’ll cut away from the stuff that’s not quite right. Or maybe he will feel that it’s OK, and it’s me being self-conscious—I’ll feel that it’s not right, but actually it’s OK. Professionals, say saxophone players, do the same things, but I’m watching so carefully that I have to lighten up and put it in its right perspective. Yes, looking at dailies you figure, “Well, next time I’ll do this or do that.” If they’re really bad, you reshoot it.
?: But looking at rushes doesn’t lead you to change you style of acting in a film.
DeNiro: No. Some directors don’t allow you to see them. Anybody who asks should be allowed to see them, unless they’re “flippo” and they’re going to watch themselves and go crazy and change their whole perfomance. I mean, you still have to walk from here to there to get to the other side of the street. If you see yourself, just maybe you walk a little this way, or change your style of walk slightly. But you have enough sense to know that you’re not going to throw the thing out of whack, because then you’re just screwing it up for yourself.
But I do want to do something where I never look at rushes, because you always get kind of disappointed. You know every foot of the thing; you’ve seen everything. So finally, it’s hard to really be objective. I’d like to do one thing where I feel so confident about what I’m doing that I’ll just do it and I won’t look at any of the rushes. I’ll just see the finished film.
?: What do you look for in a director—and ability to work with actors?
DeNiro: Well, some directors—newer directors—know less about acting per se. Their tradition is not the theater, first of all. A director can have very good instincts but not know much about how to work with an actor. Kazan is someone who works very simply, but he is a wonderful director and he knows the theater and the movies, and works well in both. He gives you all the support that you need in a professional way—like a coach, you know.
Other directors, usually good ones, just have good instincts. They have an overall sense of how to make a film, but they don’t understand actors and they don’t have to. Some will let you alone. But they have good common sense and good taste. If they see that you’re doing something wrong, they’ ll stop you, or they’ll guide you this way or that way, depending on the overall thrust of the film and what they want to do with it and the reasons they cast you.
The worst thing is a director that tells someone how to do something. You know, some directors like results, and they’ll tell you, “You do this and go over and you smile.” You say, “I’ve never been in this situation. What do you mean I go over and smile?” They don’t understand that you could do it in another way and that it would be better for you. Not only better for you, but it would give you more confidence and more joy. And you would know that they trust you and your choice. It might not be the way the director imagined it. But in the long run it will have the same effect. So that’s the most important thing, because you can break somebody’s spirit very easily.
Then there’s the opposite, where a director is intimidated. Say, in my position, if I’m with a director and he says yes to everything. That’s ridiculous. I have to have somebody I respect and who respects me and who tells me, “No” or “That’s OK, but try this.” You have to have a give-and-take. If it’s out of balance, then it won’t work.
?: Should more directors have an acting background?
DeNiro: It definitely would help. You can’t lose by doing it.
?: Martin Scorsese had a small role in TAXI DRIVER. How did he come to play the part?
DeNiro: Originally George Memmoli was supposed to play the part. What happened was, the day before he was supposed to come in, he fell and hurt himself really bad and he couldn’t do it. So Marty decided to do it.
?: Do you think Scorsese wants to be in front of the camera more?
DeNiro: I don’t know. I know he was offered some parts he didn’t want to do. He was offered the Charles Manson character for the television movie HELTER SKELTER. But he was a little paranoid. He figured they were going to come after him too. But he might do something. If I ever directed a movie and I wanted him for one of the main parts, he would do it. I know he would do it.
?: Did the shooting script for TAXI DRIVER undergo significant changes during the filming?
DeNiro: When you do a movie, it changes. You always make adjustments; you change when you’re on the spot. Even if on paper it looks good, you know it won’t be right if you shoot it that way. You get an idea, when you’re on the set, to do this instead of that. What Paul Schrader does very well for us is give us a good structure. But in TAXI DRIVER there were a lot of things that weren’t in the script that we would do.
When I walk up to Harvey Keitel and I shoot him, I don’t know if that’s the way it was written in the script. Now, if it was a director who was doing it by the book, he would say, “Why aren’t you doing it the way it’s written?” What’s the difference how you do it? You’ve just got to do it, as long as it’s right within the nature of the situation. I would say, offhand, twenty, twenty-five percent of the film is different from the screenplay.
?: Travis Bickle, the character you play in TAXI DRIVER, isn’t easy to understand. How would you explain him?
DeNiro: You know, everybody always says that you have to explain certain things. There are some things you can’t explain. I used to ask Jake La Motta, “Why did you do this? Why did you do that?” The guy would answer me—and actually he did a very good job, because I couldn’t do as well. He would tell me some answers that were insightful. If somebody asked me, I couldn’t be that honest and straight. What I’m saying is that if you don’t understand certain things about characters, it’s all right. You don’t have to spell it out. The movie is not a course on how to understand the character.
?: But YOU have to understand the actions of a Bickle.
DeNiro: I make it work for myself, but I may not understand why this character would do this. I wouldn’t do it. On the other hand, I can understand it in a way, and I have to find a way to make it work. Paul Schrader wrote the script ten years ago, I think. There was something about it that drew us to it—the loneliness of this guy.
?: Your character in THE DEER HUNTER isn’t always easy to understand either. What do you think is going through his mind during the singing of “God Bless America” at the end?
DeNiro: I felt he was going along with it, like you sing “Happy Birthday” at a party.
?: What was your own feeling about that ending?
DeNiro: Some people, I heard, didn’t like it. I thought it was OK. I thought it was nice. It wasn’t a statement saying that these people were gung ho, sort of right-wing, whatever. It was just what it was.
?: How did you go about understanding your character?
DeNiro: I went hunting and tried to shoot a deer with one bullet—no, I’m only kidding. That’s what I liked about the script—I liked the characters. I liked that they didn’t say much, that there wasn’t anything that was condescending or patronizing toward them.
?: What problems did you have in doing the Russian roulette scenes?
DeNiro: It’s very hard to sustain that kind of intensity. I mean, we were really slapping each other; you sort of get worked up into a frenzy. It’s a very difficult thing to do. It took a long time.
?: If the screenwriter is available, do you ever rely on him for building a character?
DeNiro: A lot of times the writer doesn’t know much more about the character than you. If it’s a writer who writes very personally, you get the feeling he might be putting his personal feelings through a character. It could be a baseball player. He doesn’t know the nature of the professional behavior of these people in a situation. Then you have to just go on your own, because you know he doesn’t know it. In other words, it’s up to you as an actor to make those details work for you.
It would be nice to get a writer who really knows a certain milieu, a certain life-style. Then you could ask him questions about it, and he would know all the nuances and everything. It’s also good if you know a bit about it, too, so you don’t always have to rely on him. When we were doing the fight scenes in RAGING BULL, Jake La Motta was always there. But then when we did the acting stuff in New York, we didn’t want him around. He understood, because you don’t want the guy to come over and say, “That’s not the way I did it.” You feel like you’re doing it for the approval of someone else.
It gets back to the thing with directors. They have to validate what you’re doing, and not say, “Very good,” and tap you on the head, but just say, “That’s right. It’s moving in the right direction.” You know yourself. But sometimes you know it and they don’t know it, and that’s a strange feeling. I’ve had that once or twice. You say, “I know this is right. I know it’s right,” and these people are saying, “It’s wrong.” But that was before, when I was in situations where I was hired as an actor and just did the work.
?: In those early days of your career, how did you go about choosing roles?
DeNiro: Well, they chose me, I didn’t choose. You get certain things and you make do with them; you’re lucky to get a job. If it’s a good part, you don’t think about all the things that are wrong. But I turned down some things I knew were wrong. I also had what you’d call leads in movies. But then a director would come along and I’d want to work with him. It would be a small part, but I’d do it because I wanted to work with him or something.
?: What kind of criteria do you have now?
DeNiro: A good script, number one. I usually have more to say now about the casting because I feel that it’s very, very important that the movie is cast well. You know, I had somebody tell me once—he had done some films, but he didn’t have that much experience—“You just cut away to this or that. You don’t have to worry about the actors.” But if you don’t have anything that’s interesting to watch, that’s real or that grabs you, whether it be actors or real people, then no matter how beautiful the photography is or how great the editing, it’s not going to make any difference. Like the Abscam tapes. All this blurry videotape stuff, but you’re curious because of what it is. You watch it because you know a real thing is going on there.
?: You mentioned the changes that were made on the set of TAXI DRIVER. There’s a scene in NEW YORK, NEW YORK where you’re in a hallway and you hang up the phone. Suddenly, different thoughts go across your face, but you never say a word. Was that written into the script?
DeNiro: No, that was thought up on the sound stage. You don’t know those things until you’re on the set and you do them. You have to be flexible, because that means another setup, maybe another half a day, which then means money.
?: What WERE you thinking?
DeNiro: I hate to disappoint you—I don’t know. You probably thought I was really working. That’s what I mean: It’s very simple. Some people are able to do that more easily than others by being very simple. It’s also what’s been built in before. So you have to know that as an actor you don’t overstate it and say, “Well, now I’m going to kvetch a little here to show them how I feel.” The audience knows how you feel. The less you show the better.
?: In THE GODFATHER, PART 2, was it different to portray a young man who had already been portrayed as an older man?
DeNiro: Well, I was given certain things, and so I had to stick to those. In a way I didn’t mind, because otherwise you have to think of it all on your own, you have to come up with something new. I was given Marlon Brando playing the Godfather. I had to play it in my way but connect it to him physically as much as I could, but not imitate or anything. So it was an interesting sort of problem.
?: In the films you’ve done with Martin Scorsese, have you had much opportunity to rehearse before shooting?
DeNiro: In the few movies we’ve done together, we’ve rehearsed differently. I think rehearsal is important. Again, this is something that a lot of filmmakers—newer filmmakers I think—don’t think about. They don’t think it’ s important to rehearse. There all kinds of rehearsals. It’s not like doing a play. Like for the next movie I’m going to do, I think it’s important that we really rehearse for at least a month, because it really needs it. But it can also be sitting around a table and just getting familiar with each other. Sometimes you don’t need much more, because the movie is maybe a couple of lines and a look from the character. So what are you going to rehearse? It’s not like a play, where people say a lot and you literally have to learn the lines. Sometimes we videotape the rehearsals and get material that’s even better that what’s written and incorporate it into the scene.
?: Do you work through the entire script to get an overview?
DeNiro: Right, right. Even when you read people for parts. You know, when you read with actors, you start getting a sense of how it sounds. If it’s an actor who really latches into it and does it right, has the right rhythm of the character and the way it’s written, then you see that it works. You see that it works, and probably that actor will get the part. Sometimes I read with actors and I think, For the next movie I’m not going to read until it’s really down to a few people. I don’t want to start getting into habits that are not like the character.
Actors always complain, “Well, they made me read with the casting director or the stage manager.” When I’m there I feel a little bad if actors read with the casting director, because I know that I should read with them. But on the other hand, I don’t want to get locked into anything. I kind of want to be outside of it. Otherwise, you’re reading and you don’t know who you are as a character yet.
?: You said you were preparing for something. What’s your next film?
DeNiro: I’m going to do a movie called THE KING OF COMEDY with Scorsese and Jerry Lewis. Some team. We’re going to do that in the Spring.
?: What is Lewis going to play?
DeNiro: He’s going to play a Johnny Carson-type character. I try to get on his show, and he’s giving me the brush-off all the time. It’s very well written, so I don’t like to tamper with the dialogue too much.
?: Who’s the writer?
DeNiro: A guy named Paul Zimmerman. He used to be a film critic for NEWSWEEK. I think he’s a music critic now. But he wrote a very, very good script.
?: Are you interested in getting involved in other aspects of the business—directing, producing?
DeNiro: Maybe directing. I’m thinking of that. But, you know, everybody wants to direct.
?: Is there an ideal part that you’d like to play in the future, some dream character?
DeNiro: No, I don’t think of anything at this point.
?: Are you going to stay with the same type of character that you’ve built on the screen?
DeNiro: No, I don’t want to. What do you think I should do? Does anybody have any suggestions?
?: THE KING OF COMEDY project may give you a chance to go in another direction. I’m assuming that it’s lighter than TAXI DRIVER, unless you shoot Jerry Lewis.
DeNiro: Yes. It is lighter. It’s not a comedy the way we know comedies, but it’s very funny.
?: What problems did you have doing 1900 for Bertolucci in Italy? Would you work for a European director again?
DeNiro: Well, European directors I don’t know much about. But I’ve heard about them. It’s common knowledge that certain directors tell you what to do. I had that with Bertolucci, too. He would tell me what to do. We had some problems in the beginning. As a person I liked him very much, but as a director he has another style that for me wasn’t as good as it could have been. So many of the greatest directors are Italian, but I’ve heard that they tell you, “Do this. You walk over here and do that.” I don’t know why they do that. They just don’t look at it the way Americans do.
?: Hitchcock would tell actors what to do rather than what to feel.
DeNiro: But you see, now there it’s a very specific type of style. The director should let the actors know what he’s trying to do in the style. An actor understands, if you tell him. Then I would say, “Yes, you’re right.” I would only do that with people I respect very much and I want to work with, like Scorsese. I’ll do anything that he wants just to see if it’ll work. It’s a lot of fun trying to make something stylized. Marty had a lot of that in the fight stuff in RAGING BULL. For him I would do it. I’d do it for others, too. But it’s important to be one on one and give the actor the confidence and explain to him what the thing is, especially if he asks. Not to say, “Do it.”
?: But there are lazy actors.
DeNiro: Yes, OK. There are, and people tell them what to do. It depends on who you cast. If you use a lazy actor, an actor who doesn’t care—I don’t see that person in anything that I even want to be involved with.
?: In 1900, how did you develop the character you played?
DeNiro: It was hard. It’s not my culture, so I spent a lot of time there before it was shot to get a sense of the place and the people and so on.
?: Did everybody speak English?
DeNiro: Everybody spoke their own language. In Italian movies you just speak what you want and they dub it all in later. But actually, this one was direct sound, because it was an American-financed project, a big thing. That’s a mistake, I think. As soon as some European directors get the three-picture deal over here, that’s the end for them more or less. Very few can really make a movie here and make it work. They all gear it to the American audience—“Will it make it in America? Will it make it in America?” You can’t think of it that way. You’ve got to make it for yourself, and if it makes it in America as an art film, then that’s what it is. But at least people have respect for you.
When I’m in Italy, they give me scripts and they ask me if it will work in America. “I don’t think so,” I say. But they shouldn’t be thinking that. The best directors—Bergman, Bunuel—they don’t worry about that. You know, I read somewhere that Fellini said, “I don’t even know what kind of tie a person would wear in America. How could I do a movie there?”
?: You’ve talked about the script changes that take place on the set. Are some of those changes in the way of editing, tightening?
DeNiro: You know, you find that when you do a movie, you can overstate something. You can say it three times when all you have to do is say it once. And that one time is more powerful than all the others; each time it diminishes it more and more. You can edit a script and you think you have it. But when you get out there and then you see it finally on screen, you can edit even more. It’s hard to visualize.
Some people have a very good knack at doing that, and some I think don’t. Some people, like Hitchcock, plan everything. That doesn’t mean that they don’t give actors freedom within all that exactness. Sometimes, like with Scorsese, I’ll do something offcamera, or something that I’m sure is going to be cut out and then what he’ll do is leave it in. You know, it’s a little out of character and he likes it, so he keeps it. So now I have to be more careful.
?: Are there any particular actors or actresses that you’ve especially enjoyed working with?
DeNiro: I don’t want to sound like Mr. Nice Guy, but I’ve enjoyed working with most of the people I have worked with. I enjoyed working with Joe Peschi, who plays my brother in RAGING BULL. He’s very good. I like to see an actor who is good. That’s a real turn-on, because you know when people are good the whole thing is going to be good.
?: How important is a camera angle on your acting, particularly if you know that it will make the moment more dramatic?
DeNiro: Scorsese, say, will put it at a certain angle because he knows that that will make it more dramatic and that’s what he wants. It won’t affect me. But I’ll get off on it. I’ll understand what he’s doing. We joke about one scene in TAXI DRIVER where I’m over the fire. We call that the Charles Atlas scene. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I don’t know if he intended it that way. I’m curious to see how it’s all going to turn out, so I get off on whatever we have to do.
?: He looks to camera angles to bring out something more than is in the script.
DeNiro: Yes. Well, he knows what he thinks it will be, and then maybe when he gets on the set, he’ll change something. Scorsese does a lot of storyboards; he does little drawings and everything. The right stuff in RAGING BULL was all choreographed and storyboarded. I think he had on one fight—the last fight I have—about sixty setups.
?: Have you been concerned, by the way, about Jake La Motta’s reaction to RAGING BULL?
DeNiro: He knows it’s a movie. He knows you can’t be literally this and that, even with the fight stuff. He was with us enough to know what it takes. You know, we all worked hard on it, so he hopes that it does well. He’ll know by the feedback that he gets from people. If they tell him bad things, then he’ll come looking for me.
?: You and Scorsese have worked together on four or five films now. How do you work and communicate together?
DeNiro: A lot of times I used to talk to him in private, in front of no one. I like sometimes to be very personal with the director. He can say whatever he wants to other actors, but when we talk, it’s with each other and that’s it. We’ve worked so much with each other now, we trust each other. Not that we didn’t trust each other before, but I think now if there ’s another person around, we can still talk. We have solid communication. But even so, a lot of times still like to just talk to him on the side so nobody hears. Maybe it’s something I’m going to try, and I want to prepare him for it so he can cover it. It might get a reaction from the other actors, so he has to be ready for it.
?: Does he get specific with you? Things like, “Give me more.”
DeNiro: He likes to orchestrate. I can see Marty if he was over there and we’re doing a scene here, he’d be doing this, “Keep it down.” (Motioning with his hand.) It’s not like he’s telling me and I should be aware of what he’s telling me. It’s half-and-half. But it’s not intrusive. I see him doing it when he’s watching other scenes, like to himself. It’s really just orchestrating, leading.
?: Do you go into the editing room?
DeNiro: No, I don’t. I’ll see a rough cut after a few months. I’ll look at it again and again, and I’ll just make notes and tell them what I think.
?: Obviously, you trust Scorcese enough to know that he’s not going to ruin your performance or ruin the story.
DeNiro: No, he’s not. We disagree on things. I tell him this or that. All I can do is say it, because it’s his movie. If I was directing something, I would feel that same way. I would want input from people, and I would want to know what they felt. But in the long run I have to make the final decision. But we don’t disagree strongly about stuff, because we think very much alike.
?: Does your approach to a role change from director to director?
DeNiro: Well, I did THE LAST TYCOON with Kazan, and we used to do “improvs” on the nature of being a studio executive. They were very simple, and he was very supportive all the time. You wouldn’t feel that it was laborious; it was more fun. He’s very easy. It’s like he takes it trippingly. If you want to do it again, he’ll do it. I sometimes like to do it again and again and make sure it’s right. His method of improvisation doesn’t mean improvising on the screen. It means improvising behind the scenes, like on a situation to find other colors.
That’s the way it’s meant in the theater—to loosen you up and find behavioral things. Because in a play, what the author writes is written in stone. You can’t get one word changed most of the time. The lines are there, and this is what it is. So you find other ways physically of doing things through improvs. But those are working improvs. In movies improvising means something else. It means you ad-lib, which can be OK too.
So with Kazan we stuck very much to the script, practically word for word, because Kazan promised Harold Pinter that he wouldn’t change anything. I frankly think that a script should be changed; you have to make the adjustments, or it becomes something rigid. With Scorsese we would improvise another way. He would videotape it, and then we would look at it after.
?: Did Coppola, for instance, give those freedoms?
DeNiro: Yes, Coppola does. He respects actors. In my experience, he lets them do what they want. He gives you the support. He wants you to be comfortable. I think he does that with all the people who work for him. That’s the first thing—to allow people to feel that they’re contributing and that they’re not being held down all the time and can’t express their own ideas. But he picks people who understand him, too, so they have some common ground.
?: But some actors, on their own, are inclined to “push” a scene.
DeNiro: It happens more in movies because movies are more subtle. An actor feels he’s not doing enough, so he overcompensates for it. It’s like what I was saying when I was in the corner in RAGING BULL. I was jumping up and down too much. What I try to do as an actor is be aware of those things so that I can work on them, so that I can feel relaxed in that situation. That ’s why when I prepared for BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, I saw in every baseball game how relaxed the players were. I could just pick it up. I could practice in my room watching them do nothing.
That doesn’t mean you should be flat. You still have to be thinking. It’s like people who talk about their families. Their mother was hit by a car and killed and so on, and they kvetch and moan and groan and all that. And other people—one guy told me how his wife was murdered, and he just told me blank. Of course, the feeling I got was that it was over, it was a past thing. Now if he was telling somebody in a more immediate situation, he might have broken down; in this situation he didn’t. But an actor might tend to feel, Gee, this is a more powerful emotional scene. I have to give a little more. As soon as he gives too much, the audience gets turned off.
?: How does a director pull back his actors?
DeNiro: You can give them an object—not a cigarette, because that’s the oldest crutch in the world—but something to take their minds off the fact that they want to overdo it. Or just give them what you call an “as if”—imagine that you’re talking to a dog or whatever. Anything that they can use to take their minds off it.
?: If you have to repeat an emotional scene, say to cover another angle, what tricks do you use to work yourself up again?
DeNiro: It’s hard to get worked up. If it’s a very emotional scene, it’s very hard. That’s why I like to use a few cameras. Otherwise, I have to get myself worked up again. I might have somebody say something to me that will get me started. I might see one person, and if I associate something with that person—say someone in the crew—I might ask him to say something to me or to do something. They might think I’m a little crazy, but they know and they’ll do it. You get them to do it realistically. It could be anything to get started or back into it. It’s hard.
?: You’ve been mentioning the theater. Do you have any desire to go back to the theater?
DeNiro: I want to do a play.
?: You studied with Lee Strasberg, who’s trained a number of stage actors.
DeNiro: Yes. I studied mainly with Stella Adler. I used to do off-off Broadway plays. Some of them were comedies. I traveled around the South and did some dinner theaters—Neil Simon type of comedy and stuff like that. But I haven’t done a play in six or seven years. Time goes by. But I want to do a play. I’ve been seeing plays in New York. I don’t know when, but I will. I have two films I want to do; then I’m planning on doing something.
?: Would one of those films be a Western?
DeNiro: No. I wouldn’t want to touch a Western. They’ve been done so often, and who wants to be out in the middle of the desert for three months? Forget that.
?: Do you still enjoy what you’re doing as much as when you first got into it?
DeNiro: Yes. Yes, I do. When I’m working, I do. There are other things that come along with it, but I do enjoy it. I can get sidetracked here and there, bu the most important thing is to keep my mind on what I’m doing. You know, I have a little time off now before I do the next movie. I always wanted the time off. Now I have it and it’s like I don’t know what to do. I get a little depressed almost. What am I going to do with myself?
THE FILMS OF ROBERT DENIRO
Greetings—Sigma 111 Corp—1968
The Wedding Party—Ajay Film Co.—1969
Bloody Mama—American International Pictures—1970
Hi, Mom!—Sigma 111 Corp—1970
Sam’s Song—Cannon Releasing—1971(rereleased, with additional footage, as The Swamp in 1980).
Born To Win—United Artists—1971
Jennifer on My Mind—United Artists—1971
The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight—MGM—1971
Bang The Drum Slowly—Paramount—1973
Mean Streets—Warner Bros.—1973
The Godfather, Part 2—Paramount—1974
The Last Tycoon—Paramount—1976
New York, New York—United Artists—1977
1900—Paramount—1977 The Deer Hunter—Universal—1978
Raging Bull—United Artists—1980
True Confessions—United Artists—to be released. End of article.